Alaska’s first female Alaska Native lieutenant governor was greeted by a standing ovation Thursday in Anchorage as she delivered her inaugural remarks to a public audience.
Two days after the abrupt resignation of Byron Mallott, Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson delivered the keynote address at the opening of the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference.
“You should know that I am brand new to this; I have never been a lieutenant governor before. That’s OK,” she said to applause and laughter.
Davidson, formerly commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, had been scheduled to deliver the keynote before she was tapped to become lieutenant governor.
She acknowledged the abrupt change without revealing the incident that led to Mallott’s resignation.
“Just two days ago, our world shifted, and I want you to know Alaskans deserve the highest standard of conduct by their elected officials,” she said. “These last few days have been tough for all of us, but today is a new day. Today we move forward.”
Officials in the governor’s office have said only that Mallott offered his resignation after inappropriate remarks toward a woman. It is not known what the remarks were, or who they were addressed to.
In her speech, Davidson explained her history as a “village girl” in Southwest Alaska and discussed the need to triumph despite adversity.
“I want our children to know that just because bad things happen to us in our childhood, they don’t have to define our future or who we are as people,” she said.
Davidson also discussed her recent work with the health department, saying that expansion of the federal Medicaid program has been wildly successful in Alaska.
“For Medicaid expansion, those dollars came to every single community in Alaska where health care is provided,” she said.
Alaska’s Medicaid program was unilaterally expanded by Gov. Bill Walker in 2015. The act survived a court challenge but could be reversed by a new governor.
Walker himself took the stage after Davidson concluded her remarks with an exuberant seal call.
The incumbent independent acknowledged Mallott’s resignation without explaining it.
“Byron Mallott is my brother and my closest friend and my soulmate. That will not change. His wisdom and values have guided my thinking,” Walker said. “Sometimes leaders fall down. It’s what we do after the fall that defines who we really are. Byron did the right thing. He took responsibility immediately for his actions. He owned up to his mistake and resigned.”
In the rest of his address, Walker explained his administration’s actions for rural Alaska and Alaska Natives. At times, it seemed to take the appearance of a farewell address.
Walker is running for re-election against Republican, Democratic and Libertarian opponents, and he trails in the polls. Mallott’s resignation is likely to pose another obstacle.
“This may be the last time I address you formally. I recognize that,” he said.
He ended his address with a formal apology to Alaska Natives for the injustices of colonialism.
“I conclude today with this message: As the 11th governor of the state of Alaska, I apologize to you, Alaska’s first people, for the wrongs you have endured for generations. For being forced into boarding schools, I apologize. For being forced to abandon your native language and adopt a foreign one, I apologize. For erasing your history, I apologize. For the generational and historical trauma you have suffered, I apologize. This apology is long overdue. It is but one step and hundreds more to go on this journey toward truth, reconciliation and healing,” he said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives is the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska and its annual conference is the largest gathering of Alaska Native organizations in the state.
Thursday’s award winners
• Carl Marrs, president and CEO of Old Harbor Native Corporation, was named the 2018 AFN Citizen of the Year.
• Jim Lynn Dillard of Kodiak received the Denali Award for helping preserve Native culture by teaching woodcarving and mask making in Port Lions.
• Cynthia Erickson of Tanana, Kelly Fields of Fort Yukon and Anna Bill of Mountain Village were awarded the Shirley Demienteff Award, which recognizes individuals or organizations who have improved the lives of Alaska Native women and children. The award has been issued each year since 2008, and this is the first time it has been given to multiple people in the same year. “We usually present the Shirley Demientieff Award to just one individual, but this year we simply could not choose,” Walker said.
Thank you to 3 remarkable Alaskans who earned the 2018 Shirley Demientieff Award, given for improving the lives of Alaska Native women and children. Their grassroots work to prevent drug trafficking & suicide is humbling.
— Governor Bill Walker (@AkGovBillWalker) October 19, 2018
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.